What kind of democracy do we really want?

Posted on 29/01/2022 by Ed Hammond.

At the time of writing we are in the midst of the political furore over allegations of parties held in Downing Street during lockdown. Far from being trivial, this is a matter which speaks to what democracy is, and what we expect of those who represent us. We still, hopefully, expect those who represent us to be held to high standards. The seeming lack of those standards causes people to lose faith in democracy overall. We see this cynicism growing in local areas too.

Perhaps it’s time to talk about the kind of democracy we want and need – and how those wants and needs might be changing, quite significantly. If you’re ready for that kind of conversation you’re in luck, because there are two reports out this week that engage with this very issue.

The first is the result of a survey carried out by the Constitution Unit into public attitudes to democracy; the second is a report of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, further to its investigation on the future governance of the UK.

Both suggest two things. Firstly, democracy is not broken (although democratic institutions may be). There is distrust in some of our institutions and, particular, in politicians. The Constitution Unit study showed a pronounced favour amongst respondents for plurality – the involvement of larger number of people in decisions, and the presence of multiple “nodes” of power – Parliament, Ministers, judges. The House of Lords report echoes this – calling for mutual respect to be a dominant theme in how decision-makers relate to each other (in the context of devolution).

Secondly, that despite a more positive position than we might have feared, it does seem as if we are at a fork in the road. The House of Lords report paints a picture of a governance framework across the UK straining to manage modern challenges. The Constitution Unit research suggests a general dissatisfaction with the ability of “ordinary” people to have their hands on the levers of power – referendums, surprisingly, were seen as one way of redressing this; citizens’ assemblies another.

What there perhaps is a need for principles to tie all this together. Many of the big questions about how we should make decisions, and hold them to account, are unclear. Who is responsible to whom? How do we enforce ethical behaviours; how do we ensure “good” decision-making? Who is the ultimate arbiter in cases of disagreement? Hitherto the UK constitution has been typified by a series of messy compromises on these questions – compromises which have, over the decades, inexorably served to gather more power at national level.

But we are going to have to grapple with and tackle these issues is democracy is to retain its vitality. Turnout at elections – particularly local elections – is low. Politics and priorities seem more divided; it is more difficult to find common ground, particularly when the idea of trying to find “common ground” with people with more and more extreme views itself seems dangerous.

These are questions which we are going to have to grapple with in local government. Councillors are going to start to think differently about democracy, local and national, and their role in it – in many areas this is already happening. Disagreement now occurs within political groups almost as much as between them. In some places the ability to find common cause may be atomising – attacked by decisions driven by the need to make urgent financial savings, amongst others. These could collectively be a set of “morbid symptoms”, suggesting that we are in that period where “the old is dying and the new cannot be born”, as Antonio Gramsci said. Maybe we are in this interregnum period where our old, comfortable assumptions about the strength of democratic institutions structures are eroding – when at the time we may need democracy most, we are going to have to face the stark choice of shoring up those systems or participating in the design of new ones.

This might come across as esoteric. But the pandemic has demonstrated to us the rapid pace of change that can happen, and has highlighted how we need a kind of democracy that can keep up.

About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.